Why pot?

Asked why I teach pottery, for a short film documentary by students from the local college, I found myself recounting my two or three ‘stock’ anecdotes:

‘The potter digs up the lump of inert mud, and by creating a pot, imbues it with his creative energy and gives it a ‘tension’ that holds the energy. The viewer or recipient sees the pot, immediately or long after it was made, and receives that energy. In some way, the creative energy of the recipient may also be stimulated by the experience.’

‘The new student comes to the pottery with a view that they’re not going to be any good at it and they’re not ‘creative’. I say that I will show them that they can make pots without a lot of training and that everyone is creative, they just have to find it in themselves, and I can help with that. This works, and after a few sessions, the student feels proud and uplifted by achieving a creative goal.’

‘For me, art is a form of communication, and pottery is a very immediate and ‘visceral’ language, compared to, for instance, abstract painting. It’s all about form and texture, about a sensuous process. If the potter feels something, his pots should express that. Even if they don’t know it, the feeling people get from their favourite cup has been communicated by the maker.’

Ok, but when asked about what gives me joy in making, I admitted that I don’t really feel that much joy. I had to reconsider what I’d said about communication and transfer of creative energy in light of the fact that I’m not feeling that joy. I still want to rise to the task of teaching. I still want to receive the affirmation from the fulfilled student. I still want to see the growth and development in the people I teach, but I no longer feel (or at least temporarily do not feel) joy in making, and I need to know where that went.

There must be a wider context. You can’t assess one aspect of your life when it is so greatly influenced by the other parts. So what’s going on? What’s getting in the way? There are questions which need to be answered.

Why create art if you do not feel the drive to create? Why try to communicate through it if you haven’t got something meaningful to say? Who do you want to create for? What do they want from you? But so many artists just to ‘show up at the page’ and work through it, day by day in a devoted way. Dig deeper and find the meaning.

We’re living in a world where there’s such shit going on, where the level of destructive influence overwhelms that peace we associate with the creative process. It’s tempting to succumb to fear and loathing, to be paralysed by internalising the news, swallowing the effluent. It’s tempting to drown it in drink and TV and chores.

What takes priority in a life-stage where it’s more of a struggle to maintain currency and value? Work or making? Is it indulgent to slip into the pottery and ‘play’ when there’s ‘real’ work out there to be done? Surely these negative forces which surround our ‘practice’ can be used. Surely they can be channeled. Why does it feel like defeat at the hands of…?

Time to respond to the clarion call: Just get up, get out there, and make the fucking pot. Get off the fucking pot… Stop gazing at your navel and work at it!


What’s been going on: Episode 6

It was the year we didn’t catch bird flu, but inoculated our children and gave them narcolepsy instead. It was also the year when the world’s most wanted terrorist, progenitor of WMD and figurehead of evil, Saddam Hussein, was executed. In 2006, the US legislated to build a border fence with Mexico. Dell recalled millions of computer batteries because they might catch fire, and anti Muslim cartoons caused protests and deaths in Libya. Deja Vu? Google bought YouTube and Nasa launched a probe which was due to reach Pluto by 2019. And in November, 349 people died when a Saudi plane crashed into a Kazakhstani plane. Michael Stone strode into Stormont and tried to blow it up.

The world I occupied had changed immeasurably since 1996. My own self-determined space, in which I’d collected together the sum of the parts of my ‘old life’ and shaken them through a sieve and found no nuggets in the panning tray, was pretty empty. I’d chosen to reject myself as corporate man, then I’d given up or failed to be a true entrepreneur, and then I’d thrown out my comfortable middle-class London lifestyle. I could argue that all three steps were carefully thought through. I could say that I’d approached the precipice and jumped because I knew, or at least believed, I could fly. But really, I’d jumped, expecting to be dashed on the rocks below, because that would feel better than what was behind me. In reality, I hadn’t jumped but had fallen. In the end, it amounted to the same thing. I floated down to earth, more like gliding than falling, but I didn’t fly. My soft landing wasn’t so soft for the family. What seemed a positive step forward for me was an unwanted wrench for them.

We’d left London abruptly in 2000, packed up the house and sold it, bought a house and collection of outbuildings in Ireland and moved over. I gave up paid work and began to live on savings, ploughing large amounts of them into renovating the house and its outbuildings to make a home and a new business premises, for Kinsale Pottery. The physical structures took shape without the concomitant emotional investment, and time passed.

But it does matter whether I fell or jumped or tried to fly, because everything up until that point had been about control of my self-definition in the external world, about my status. That wasn’t just a material status, though much of it was about wealth and title and control. It was fundamentally about potency. You peel away the layers of protection, the well-made clothing in which you’re used to parading, and you find yourself naked. You take away the needs which you satisfy in others and you find yourself to be useless. You remove your responsibilities and you wither.

And so the years approaching November 2006 were a lurching nightmare, interwoven with a sense of release, irresponsibility. Slowly, and much more carefully, I built a new identity around art. I was the artist and teacher, and mostly it felt good. I stopped being the bastard Managing Director who drove his minions ever harder. I stopped being the fat cat who drove his BMW. I stopped being needed, and I began to shrink, like Scott Carey in The Incredible Shrinking Man, and it was very hard to find something to hold on to.


In 2005 I joined Mareta Doyle to develop Kinsale Arts Week, and after the July 2006 festival was wrapped up and reported upon, I realised that people in Kinsale had begun to see me. And I started to feel needed. I set up West Cork Calling, a tourism marketing network, and Hands On West Cork, a craft teachers marketing network, and I signed up for a tourism training programme, and I chaired Cork Professional Craftworkers Forum, and I built walls and piled responsibilities on them and definitions and it began to feel like the old days.

But everything was somehow less appealing, less engaging, less of a rush than it used to be, and it felt like I was building on sand. The old foundations were gone. All the values on which I’d build my career were meaningless now. 2006 was a hollow rampage of gestures.